There was a small portion of the audience in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern at La JohnJoseph's show on Tuesday night, that were disrespectfully chattering for most of the hour. Probably leftovers, lost on their way out of the inane comedy acts that went on beforehand. But the several times I glanced around the room during the performance of Underclass Hero, the self-proclaimed 'Transdrogynous' performance artist's new full length solo work, at least 90% of faces were staring back with a look of - albeit slightly perplexed, almost puzzled - fierce concentration. I think they were searching for irony.
It must be said, La JohnJoseph is simply a bizarre creature to behold. You never quite know what you are looking at, the remarkable thing being that what you see seems to shift right before your eyes. You would swear he was a drag queen, and he was wearing a bit of sparkly eye make-up above his impossibly high cheekbones, but he was dressed in what looked like a bargain store tracksuit and trainers. His facial features are so naturally grandiose and expressive, in most contexts he could pass for a Grand middle-aged (or even older) woman, but there is a little boy hiding behind the long-lashed sleepy eyes. And it is certainly the tragicomic, if at times brutally blunt, portrait of a youngster that he tells in the meticulously crafted text of Underclass Hero.
The curiously focused looks of the audience I put down primarily to the mesmerising candour of La JJ's story, but also to the aforementioned lack of irony. Perhaps the only ironical elements to the work are a few sardonic snarls on the part of the storyteller, or the gender disorientation and expectation on the part of some, that they would be seeing a proper drag show. I guess a case could be made for there being some inherent contrast between Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero, the statuesque opening number, and the bleak descriptions of council estate life that follow, but a close examination of the lyrics reveals this, like all of the other well-chosen numbers, to be pretty much straightforwardly illustrative of the hard-knock-yet-hopeful tale he tells.
The brave-faced and chipper way La JohnJoseph speaks of narrowly escaping being handed in to the Family Services office by his mother, like so much broken merchandise, commingles with the strains of Guns & Rose's Sweet Child O' Mine so poignantly that the song could have been written for the piece. During the bridge of another song, when he sits down in a gangly-teenager posture to the side of the stage, and watches a long string of spit unceremoniously slide out of his rouged lips onto the floor, its simply an effective way to emphasise how he felt the first time he was the victim of a hateful slur and gesture. Indeed, it is in these moments where he sort of gives up 'performing', that the piece is the most moving. A couple of times he disappears altogether, continuing his narration as a disembodied voice, a powerful metaphor for the adolescent invisibility upon which his performance art seems to be a direct assault.
Comparisons have been made between La JohnJoseph and Bowie and there is something to be said for that visually and perhaps vocally, but I am put more in mind of Johnny Cash - 'a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction' - or Bob Dylan, storytellers of legendary proportions, but who lack the ostentation of less intelligent counterparts. The piece does seem to be a written work first, diligently recited - at times as though he were reading off of the inside of his droopy eyelids - but oddly no less engaging for this. This is apparently a work-in-progress and he could use some work on the confidence of his delivery. On occasion I wanted to scream for him to just stand still and talk, instead of punctuating every second word with a gesture and nervously prowling around the stage. But the ornate poses he sometimes struck, the spell of which was often broken by throwaway shrugs, gave off a child-playing-in-his-mother's-clothes quality that sweetly suited the material. In all, you'll be hard pressed to find a more effective spinner of True Tales - '…entirely true (even the bits I made up)' as the programme boasts.
At the end, in an unnecessary and perfunctory attempt to neatly wrap up the themes of the piece, La JohnJoseph pays homage to a list of some of the stalwarts of post-Punk Queer performance art. Most of the artists he lists I've seen perform more than once, some of them many times. The pastiche and brassiness of his style I suppose owes a debt of influence to this group, and most of them are probably more polished and poised as performers, but I promise you, none of them is as honest.
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